If there's one thing I have grown tired of seeing on my peregrinations through the Natosphere (well, aside from the constant calls from some folks to trade Adam Dunn for anything, even a bag of magic beans) it's the utterly false and depressing claim that the Nats are the worst defensive team in baseball. I mean, I'd like to think my fellow Nationals fans aren't, on average, as stupid, ill-mannered, and deliberately ignorant as their cousins in Boston, Philadelphia and St. Louis (to name but a few) for whom nothing but wins and saves matter for pitchers, nothing but batting average and RBI matter for hitters, and nothing but errors matter when it comes to fielding. Unfortunately, reading the comments at the WaPo's Nationals Journal and Mark Zuckerman's Nationals Insider is shaking my faith. There's way too many people out there that get an idea stuck in their head, and once it's stuck no amount of proof to the contrary is going to change their mind. Certainly not statistics! Perhaps coincidentally, a lot of those people are Anonymous Cowards, as they say at Slashdot, the kind of people who can't be bothered to take a few seconds to log in with their Google ID, their Facebook ID, or some other easily-established ID that would allow us to detect which idiots we could ignore safely. Or maybe that's the point.
Well, enough spleen venting. We're just going to have to ignore the anonymous folk and move along to the main question: Are the Nationals, in fact, the worst defensive team in the major leagues? Or even the National League? Sure, we lead the league in errors, and our team fielding percentage is 16 out of 16...but it's been known for years that neither of those statistics is really any good when it comes to answering the question we're asking. For reasons I've explained in this post, I tend to prefer Range Factor when it comes to evaluating defensive quality in fielders; it doesn't work well for catchers and first basemen, but everywhere else it will serve quite nicely. So let's go look at the Nationals' fielding page on Baseball-Reference.com and see what we can see.
Starting with the catching corps, it helps to remember that the two things we evaluate catchers on are handling of pitchers (which nobody has a decent stat for yet) and throwing out would-be base stealers. In the latter category, Pudge is clearly the better of our two receivers, taking out 42% of the would-be thieves (clearly above league average) while Wil Nieves is a little under the league average at 24%. For what it's worth, B-R rates Pudge as being three runs better than an average catcher and Wil one run better using the Fielding Runs statistic. I'm not a big fan of the linear weights stats, since I think they mash up too many disparate stats into one generic rating, but it's another tool we can use to make useful comparisons.
At first base, it's hard to tell much from the stats we have, but one thing is very clear: using the conventional metric of fielding percentage, Adam Dunn isn't the iron-handed menace to the defense some people claim he is. In fact, his fielding percentage is slightly above the league average, and actually better than his occasional defensive replacement Adam Kennedy; dragging the R score into this, we see that Dunn is actually far better than Kennedy over the course of a season (1200 innings/135 games).
Second base is full of controversy. At the beginning of the season, the plan was to shift Cristian Guzman from short to second to make room for Ian Desmond while keeping Guzman's bat in the lineup. Adam Kennedy was signed as a defensive replacement in addition to Alberto Gonzalez, one of the team's utility infielders. So far Guzman has actually worked out well at second - better than Kennedy, who has committed the same number of errors while playing only 40% of the time. The smart move would be to dump Kennedy and let Gonzalez, a far better fielder and no worse a hitter, take the innings he would have used up, but this is a team that can't seem to rid itself of Willie Harris, so...
Ryan Zimmerman has played the vast majority of the time at third base, with occasional late-inning appearances by Gonzalez and Kennedy. Zim has committed 8 of the 11 errors at third, and his range has declined to slightly below the league average. Here, too, Kennedy is a defensive liability instead of the late-inning upgrade he was supposed to be, while Gonzalez plays quite well in the hot corner when he gets a chance.
Ian Desmond, despite committing eighteen errors so far this year, is a significant defensive upgrade from Guzman at shortstop. Guzman has done well in short stints there this year, but even in his best years he never had the range that Desmond has now.
In the outfield, Josh Willingham's range factor is a little above league average in left, Morgan ditto in center (despite the five errors) while Maxwell and Morse are both (still) clearly better in right than Bernadina. There really isn't anywhere for Morse to go on this team; they should trade him to a team that can use a good fourth outfielder (Seattle?), release Harris, and make room for Maxwell as the utility outfielder. The kid is 26, the same age as Bernadina, and we're wasting his time and ours letting him pile up numbers in Syracuse.
So...if at most positions our players are better than the league average, and only in one or two are they worse, how can the Nationals be the worst defensive team in baseball? They can't be, and they aren't. The rest of the season will prove me right, I'm sure.